Jon Wertheim answers questions about Maria Sharapova's doping suspension, Hall of Fame candidacy, appeal, Meldonium use and more in his weekly Mailbag.
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Hi Jon, There is one big question about Sharapova’s case that I can’t figure out; maybe you can shed some light on it. It’s plain that Sharapova has always managed her career meticulously, whatever else one may say of her. I have a hard time believing that she and her team somehow missed that this drug she was taking had become banned; in fact, I’m fairly certain they knew long ahead of time. Why, then, was she still taking it? Carelessness doesn’t seem to be a trait of hers.
—Chris, San Francisco
• We had tons of mail, naturally, on Sharapova. Chris’ submission was fairly representative in that there are still a lot of questions that linger and elements that don’t quite add up—a theme that was echoed in the tribunal decision. Maybe I’ll offer some discussions points and we can go from there:
1. We need to unpack “lack of intent,” a phrase that has been in heavy rotation. Here’s Sharapova’s statement, which is cleverly and skillfully crafted, but, I would contend, highly misleading. "Today with their decision of a two year suspension, the ITF tribunal unanimously concluded that what I did was not intentional. The tribunal found that I did not seek treatment from my doctor for the purpose of obtaining a performance enhancing substance.”
Yet here’s the tribunal:
"Whatever the position may have been in 2006, there was in 2016 no diagnosis and no therapeutic advice supporting the continuing use of (meldonium). If she had believed that there was a continuing medical need to use (meldonium) then she would have consulted a medical practitioner. The manner of its use, on match days and when undertaking intensive training, is only consistent with an intention to boost her energy levels. It may be that she genuinely believed that (meldonium) had some general beneficial effect on her health but the manner in which the medication was taken, its concealment from the anti-doping authorities, her failure to disclose it even to her own team and the lack of any medical justification must inevitably lead to the conclusion that she took (meldonium) for the purpose of enhancing her performance."
Let’s parse: there was a “lack of intent” vis-a-vis Sharapova’s violation and contravention of the doping rules. That is something altogether different than a lack of intent to enhance performance. There were no masking agents. She was truthful that she used meldonium in 2016. There was nothing to dispute her contention that she ignored emails and was ignorant that meldonium had been moved to the banned list. Okay, fine. But the tribunal was clear that she was intentionally using meldonium for performance enhancing purposes.
Let’s analogize this. Hypothetically, let’s say my media company had no policy against plagiarism before Jan. 1, at which point it became prohibited practice. “I had no intent to plagiarize” is one thing. “I had every intent to plagiarize; but I had no intent to violate company policy, unaware, as I was, that this practice had become prohibited on Jan.1”….that’s something else entirely.
That leads me to….
2. “Meldonium wasn’t on the banned list until Jan. 1, so Sharapova didn't do anything wrong before then.” I still take issue with how cavalierly this sentiment is being tossed around. I’m sure we can all think of behavior that was unethical without being illegal. To use wildly disproportionate analogies: before 1920, it was legal to deny women a right to vote. It was legal for American landowners to possess slaves in the 1800s. For that matter, it was legal to undertake all sorts of unspeakably horrible acts in 1940s Germany. (I warned you these were wildly disproportionate examples.) Yet we don’t forfeit the right to make a moral judgment just because behavior isn’t codified as impermissible.
Laws are intended to be vital organisms. They grow and shrink to accommodate and address changes. Policy changes. Social changes. Scientific advances. Loopholes that need closing. That’s the nature of legislation. Just because the law has yet to catch up to a practice doesn’t automatically make the practice moral or ethical or right.
3. The organizational sloppiness of the Sharapova camp staggers. Here we have the second highest-paid female athlete in the world, a one-woman brand whose wealth is owed largely to an image predicated on grace and elegance. There is an awareness—not least by Sharapova herself—that she is using a substance that is, at a minimum, pushing a limit. (That she failed to disclose her use of this drug on anti-doping forms strongly suggests an awareness of this.) How could she not have been hyper-vigilant about the annual changes to the anti-doping list?
4. In retrospect, Sharapova really undercut herself with that March press conference. Hindsight is—and always will be—20/20. But her explanation at the time that she took meldonium for magnesium deficiency, diabetes and some irregular heartbeat and was shredded by the panel. And while it’s never explicitly stated, reading the report, one infers that the your-story-just-doesn't-add-up component played a large role in the two-year determination.
5. Agree or disagree with the ruling, the tribunal deserves much credit for this report. For all the complaints about lack of transparency in the anti-doping process, here we have a 33-page document, exceedingly readable, that addresses many of the questions we all have been asking from the beginning. We learn about the origins of her prescription, her relationship with various doctors, whether she listed meldonium on her forms (she didn’t, a damning act of omission), why her agent did not catch this. It’s all there. Having read more legal documents than I care to admit, this is really exceptionally well-reasoned and well-rendered.
6. You have to respect the literary flair of a decision that ends “She is the sole author of her own misfortune.” (If Adele ever needs a new lyricist….)
7. On a more serious note: Justice, meet mercy. Read this report—which, again, I strongly encourage—and it becomes clear that Sharapova handed her lawyers an awfully adverse set of circumstances. In short, as we say in Indiana, she done messed up. While it’s right her to appeal—and she may get her sentence reduced—it’s hard to imagine a CAS panel taking issue with the conclusion.
That said, let's be clear that her majors all came prior to meldonium appearing on the banned list. Her career should not be invalidated based on a few weeks of illicit PED use. In same vein, she should still receive our votes for the Hall of Fame. And when she’s done serving her suspension, she should be welcomed back in the tent and given a chance at rehabilitation. You know what they say: “You do the crime, you do the time. Then you come back—still only 30 at a time when 34-year-olds are ranked No. 1—and re-establish yourself in your profession.” Let's be part of the article, not the comments section, and give her a chance to earn back her reputation.
While I agree there are more important things such as health of players, could you answer the question for us: Why aren't points being offered for the Olympics? You've made a few references, but I can't recall you actually giving an answer...
• Well…there’s a lot of scuttlebutt about ATP tournaments—the affected summer tournaments in particular—resentful about not being made whole for the diminished fields caused by the Olympics. But here’s the official ATP statement:
“ATP Rankings points designation at the Olympic Games has been debated for many years. One of the fundamental principles of the ATP Rankings is that they serve as a merit-based entry system for tournaments. Given that the Olympic Games do not use a completely merit based system for player entry, the consensus was not to award ATP Rankings points for the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro next year. The same principle applies to the Davis Cup, which was agreed last year would not carry points from 2016. This was mutually agreed between the ATP and the ITF.”
Hi Jon. Love your column. Just wondering...assuming Sharapova’s ban stands, do you consider her a future hall of famer? (See Hingis, M.)
• This came up a few times. (Anita asks: Sharapova was a shoo-in for Hall of Fame before Meldonium. Now is she in or out?) My general attitude: we need to be careful about moral judgments. I support the eviction of Bob Hewitt. Reprehensible acts and they were related to his status (and powerful imbalance) as a tennis star. You could certainly make a case that he dishonored the sport. But I worry this leaves us vulnerable to a slippery slope. What about drug use? What if Player X is enshrined and is suddenly convicted of a financial crime? Some other lack of integrity? Here, I think Sharapova gets in on the basis that her meldonium use was not illegal until 2016.
I'm trying to follow the "doubles wing" proposal to its logical conclusion. Would you be in favor of players like Hingis, Navratilova, the Williams sisters, et al., who are either current Hall of Fame members or future locks, to be granted entry to the Hall twice—once for their singles accomplishments and then again for their doubles success?
—Jason Rainey, Austin
• Absolutely. Why not honor players like McEnroe and the Williams sisters and the Martinas who excelled at both? If they are already—or are simultaneously— inducted for the singles, great.
I give you, dear readers, collective credit here; the doubles wing is a great idea. A) You enable us to honor the Daniel Nestor and Lisa Raymond types without enshrining them at the expense of the Yevgeny Kafelnikovs and Sam Stosurs. B) You will add more players to the summer ceremony. C) You can probably find a separate sponsor, eager to align with the version of tennis preferred by the majority of recreational players. Todd Martin, get on this!
The Ricoh Open men's semifinal line-up: Gilles Muller vs. Ivo Karlovic and Nicolas Mahut vs. Sam Querrey. Toto, I've got a feeling we're not in clay season anymore. Onward to the emerald city, er, surface.
• Good point. I think this trope about homogenized surfaces thrives because the Big Four are so damn good on everything. Nadal is a multiple-time Wimbledon winner. Murray’s clay game is probably the weak link—and he’s coming off a French Open final.
Dear Jon: There is a significant Indian middle-class presence in the U.S. who are very interested in sports, including tennis, especially doubles tennis—Sania, Lee and Bopanna. Tennis Channel could boost its viewership significantly by showing their matches. No block of viewers would be more reliable for tennis than this group.
• Thanks, I’ll pass it on. I would like to see USTA data, but my anecdotal evidence supports this. There is indeed a robust group of middle class Indians that ardently support and follow tennis. (And please add Rajeev Ram’s name to your list!)
This is not really about tennis, but if anybody here has any interest in boxing there is a fighter named Vasyl Lomachenko who, to me, is the Roger Federer of boxing. He’s a lefty who fights in the featherweight division (about 135 pounds) and has only seven professional fights. But his amateur record was a ridiculous 396-1 and many boxing experts consider him the pound-for-pound greatest boxer currently active. When you watch this guy fight, his footwork and artistry remind me of Federer—his skill level is so obviously superior to the other fighters. His brilliant footwork makes it seem like he’s floating across the ring, he has lightning quickness and he possesses every shot in the book. He just fought Saturday night at Madison Square Garden and knocked-out his opponent in (I think) the fourth round, so I thought I’d write.
—Rich, New York
• Thanks. I can’t tell you how often I come across a figure—usually, but not always, an athlete—described as the Roger Federer of their line of work. It strikes me that you know you're doing something right when you become an ideal.
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• Thanks Agyeman! I’m pretty well-covered in the Gold Dust department. Don't suppose you could sell me a spam filter?
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